Merry Christmas - in 1,000 words

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He has paddled the waters of the Mississippi River, channeling his inner Tom Sawyer. He's biked the length of South America, and from the northernmost city in Norway to Athens. He's ridden across the United States six times - and may even earn a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

And just like every year at this time, Forrest "Frosty" Wooldridge will regale his friends and family with tales of his exploits - in a holiday newsletter that's closer to a novella.

His newsletter defies all the accepted rules about such things: it's much too long, it's boastful, it's confessional. He says his life - a Peter Pan existence, he likes to call it - is just too "extraordinarily" interesting not to spill beyond the single page that proper etiquette dictates. Over the past 32 years, as Mr. Wooldridge's adventures have become ever further flung, his holiday newsletter has ballooned to four pages of "power verbs" and "jacked-up" prose.

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But his friends don't seem to mind.

"It's awesome," says Sandy Colhoun of Sanbornton, N.H., who met Wooldridge in Antarctica seven years ago and has been on his mailing list ever since. "Frosty is an exceptional individual in every way, and I'm inspired by the approach he takes to life. You can't help but read the letter and share some of the energy and enthusiasm he has."

As the holiday season rolls around, so does the ubiquitous newsletter, making a sometimes welcome and often dreaded appearance. (Not every recipient is as welcoming as Mr. Colhoun. As one colleague offers: "My wife's aunt/cousin often sends out a 'newsletter,' or rather, a novel, around the Christmas season. I ceremoniously burn it as kindling for our traditional Christmas morning fire." But another co-worker gives them considerably higher marks than, say, "two fruitcakes" or a "postcard saying you have been given a gift subscription to Sea Monkey Monthly.")

Yet despite its many warts - too much information, grimy spots the glue stick left behind - the holiday letter seems to be a tradition not to be tampered with. It's a tangible touchstone in a time when communication can be fleeting and ephemeral.

"In this electronic age, it's so easy to send an e-mail. It's so easy to send an E-card," says Christine Louise Hohlbaum, an expatriate living near Munich, Germany, who keeps her family in Virginia abreast of her life through her Web log. "But having a card or picture in your hand makes all the difference. The paper connects you in some way."

Elaine Floyd, author of "Creating Family Newsletters," agrees. "We use technology in some ways, but I think people take great pleasure in the tactile," she says. "For the holidays there is something about ... getting mail, opening it up - having that be part of your Christmas decorations."

New twists

Where advances in the newsletter are apparent, however, is in the ease with which they are produced and their overall more handsome appearance. Digital cameras, scanners, and printers spit out sleek photos, while elegant decorative paper stock is widely available at specialty stores and discounters, thanks to the popularity of scrapbooking.

This month, Better Homes and Gardens magazine features an article called "The New Family Newsletter." It offers suggestions for pithy, crafty takes on a classic - including a paper ornament monogrammed with the recipient's initial, and a business card printed with your family's contact information to urge friends and family to keep in touch.

Ms. Hohlbaum did something similar this year. She created a postcard with a photo of her two tow-headed children dressed as a prince and princess. On the back, a very brief message in the form of a fairy tale: Prince Jackson, now in kindergarten, colors left-handed and plays soccer; Princess Sophia, a first-grader, lost a tooth.

Historians say the newsletter grew out of a need to keep in touch with folks back home, especially around the holidays, as families began migrating West. But in recent years, in this era of the memoir and confessional talk show, the newsletter has taken a decidedly modern turn.

"I call it the 'Oprahfication' of Christmas letters," says Richard West, a professor of communication at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, whose research has delved into family communication. "People are putting in newsletters things they wouldn't say in person." A college classmate he hadn't spoken to in years sent out a letter detailing her son's arrest for stealing $500 worth of merchandise. "She used this holiday letter to update me on information I, frankly, probably shouldn't have known," says Professor West.

Frosty the adventurer

It's hard to begrudge Wooldridge his proud accomplishments - he and his brother may be the only siblings to cross the continent on bike and horseback, respectively. With equal enthusiasm, however, his letter lauds friends and family: There are congratulations on a new home, a simple hello to a couple in Germany, and kudos to his mom for her golfing and political activism.

So how does Wooldridge feel about churning out a missive that would make most etiquette experts cringe? "It's four pages because I have an extraordinarily interesting life every year," he says, matter-of-factly. "If they don't want to read it, they can just toss it in their circular file."

Newsletter dos and don'ts

Don't boast: The most common faux pas is bragging about your kids.

"Johnny is excited to be heading to Harvard next fall" is great. Not great: "It's no surprise that Johnny (the state's top quarterback, editor of the newspaper, class president, and valedictorian) was accepted at Harvard, given his 1600 on the SAT and 4.0 GPA (can you say 'future Rhodes Scholar'?)."

Tip: Have your kids proofread your letter. If you brag too much, they'll tell you.

Do consider people's feelings: It's fine to announce you're expecting a baby. It's not cool to announce that your sister is.

Don't go on and on: Be brief - one typewritten page, max.

If you want to share sad news, you can; however, the rest of your letter should have an appropriately muted tone.

References to the religious aspect of the holidays are fine. Proselytizing isn't. Please don't try to convert anyone or, worse, solicit donations.

Make it easy to read: If you write it by hand, do it legibly. If you type, pick a simple font in at least 12-point type. Use dark ink on light paper.

Finally, remember that everyone still deserves a personal, handwritten note at the end of your letter.

Source: Lesley Carlin McElhattan, usaweekend.com, 2003

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